Photo of Duncan dropping his kid off at daycare (image: Getty)

I send my kid to the cold equivalent of a prison-yard most days and I’m fine with it

As if parents of pre-schoolers didn’t have enough to deal with, a searing column on Monday informed them that the daycares they sent their kids to were kiddie prisons. Duncan Greive examines this appalling situation.

Monday’s Herald brought worse news than usual for parents of young children. Most were likely awoken earlier than they’d have liked, sprung into groggy action to begin their week in attending to their kids’ list of demands. Breakfast needed making, hair and teeth brushing, clothes changing, bags packing, bodies transporting – all within a frantic 90 minutes or so, while hoping to attend to some portion of those activities for yourself along the way.

Having deposited your beloved child at its daycare and poured a coffee, you probably glanced at a news website. Hopefully you were sitting down – because there you would read about an appalling case of mistreatment happening right here in New Zealand!

A daycare which is nothing more than a toddler gulag, where the child inmates languish “among strangers, with grimy plastic toys to fight over and a cold equivalent of a prison-yard to play in.”

The columnist goes on to describe tiny tots “farmed out to for-profit childcare centres, sometimes for 10 hours a day, because their parents have to go back to work, to become productive economic units.”

While trapped in these grey and barren cells, the inmates feel “invisible, invalidated”, we read in this chilling inside report. “If you went to visit an abattoir you might find it hard not to become a vegetarian.”

If I’m following the analogy correctly, a mere glimpse of this place would not just put you off daycare – but off ever reproducing in the first place.

Deborah Hill Cone’s column yesterday was a devastating indictment of an institution that many of us use every day. The whole thing dripped with concern, with contempt, with scorn for those who would force their own flesh and blood to endure such conditions.

It’s time for a confession: I am one of those appalling humans. I had dropped my middle daughter to before school care, and my youngest to daycare, before I arrived at work and read the column. By rights, I should have been mortified at my callousness.

But I wasn’t. Nothing of the sort. Because the column came not from some thorough survey or big-hearted whistleblower, but the columnist overheard two women talking. One describes to the other her daughter’s having had a tantrum the whole way there, and her having overcome that by dragging the youngster to daycare.

(Aside: Hill Cone is unusually interested in the woman’s choice of trousers, repeatedly and pointedly referring to her “yoga pants” – which science has proven as being practical and comfortable, with the bonus of making you feel like a professional wrestler).

This single, incredibly brief and routine episode – observed on a walk to university and with a smattering of deeply gendered theory wrapped around it – is enough to conjure the vision of absolute hell described above.

As someone whose two youngest children both attended for-profit daycares – though the corporate entity is now owned by a charity – I’m going to push back somewhat on the way they’re characterised.

Firstly, the “grimy… equivalent of a prison yard” does not describe the centres I saw and see, which are cleaned every day, and thus a lot more hygienic than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Both centres saw renovations during our kids’ time there, to bring in a huge combined playground and covered sandpit respectively. Both had heat pumps running the whole day in winter, rendering them far warmer and dryer than the home we lived in for much of that time.

Yet the inexplicable characterisation of the centre pales by comparison to the slight it places on the staff. The kids we sent to daycare were different kinds of challenging – one prone to getting deeply attached to ever growing collections of bizarre trinkets from home, and freaking out when they inevitably went missing. The other inconsolable at being left, and having to be talked down with patience each time.

This went on for months until she clicked, and realised where she was: a bright, exciting playground, surrounded by friends, one which cared enough for her to hold a little graduation when she left. Today she’s a bright, happy, sweet and friendly nine-year-old – one who treasures her memories of daycare. 

But it would be a lie to suggest that she didn’t find it difficult settling in. That she didn’t desperately want to stay with her mum and dad. This might seem to be proof that we were awful parents, sloughing off our duties onto the “industrial child-care complex” that failed to “take [children’s] feelings seriously.”

Only, screw that. This idea she propagates, that a child’s every urge is sacred – follow that through. Here’s a partial list of things our kids resisted: breakfast, getting dressed, having a bath, going to school, leaving after school care, dinner. And that’s just today. Truly, if the wishes of the child were inviolable, their lives would be very weird and very short. Seems like a lot of the point of being a parent is to muddle through the process of introducing your kid to the world, mostly against its will. And daycare, in its miniaturising of school and provision of dozens of different cultures under one roof, is a very effective way of doing that for your lil mite.

At one point, Hill Cone pauses to wonder why “even when we gain knowledge, so often it is used not to lead social change but to shame women.” Fair point in a vacuum, but this piece seems explicitly concerned with shaming women who already seem to have enough forces aiming to do just that in this world.

To make that clear: the word mother is mentioned eight times, the word father not once. Jacinda Ardern – whose baby is six weeks’ old, incidentally – is praised as not having put Neve into daycare, with the only possible conclusion being that anyone who were to place their child into care deserves… shame.

Seems to me that parents put their kids into all kinds of different care arrangements for all kinds of different reasons. Each decision will be weighed and anguished over plenty enough within those families. And while I’m sure there are some daycares which meet Hill Cone’s description, there’ll be plenty more which are much closer to my experience: for profit, sure, but staffed by people who slay you every day with their stamina, with their affection, with their creativity – with what they pour into your kids, so you can go and build a career or pay your rent. It’s the slight on them that made me mad enough to write this.

Towards the end of the column there’s a nod that this whole episode might have origins closer to home. After complaining bitterly about the behaviour of some young Italians on a cruise decades ago, the author pauses to concede “I might be projecting my own neuroses on to others.” As a parent and big fan of our local daycares, I can only humbly suggest the whole sorry column might have been avoided had that thought occurred further from deadline.

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